Jane Bernstein's fifth book, Rachel in the World, was published in Fall 2007. Her awards include arts fellowships in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two National Endowment Fellowships, and a 2004 Fulbright Fellowship spent in Israel, where she taught at Bar-Ilan Universitys Creative Writing Program. She has written screenplays, and essays that have been published in such places as The New York Times Magazine, Ms., Glamour, Poets & Writers, and Creative Nonfiction. Bernstein is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University.
On Throwing Out My Journals
After my mother died, and I went through the wrenching process of disposing of her possessions, I found myself thinking that I should throw away the journals I had stored in my basement. I'd considered doing this before but could not bring myself to put them in the trash. My mother's death made me think about it again. Someone would have to sort through everything I'd left behind after I died, I realized. Someone would have the wrenching job of choosing which items to keep, which to throw away, which to donate to a thrift shop.
On two occasions I did this for my mother: after she moved to assisted living in 2005, and again four years later when she died. Both times I had to empty her apartment quickly and felt overwhelmed by the effect her possessions had on me and by the sheer quantity of stuff, though my mother saw herself, as we all did, as someone who kept only what was necessary, who was adverse to clutter to an extreme degree. The least sentimental person on earth, I used to describe her, remembering the way she was always marching me to the closet in my old bedroom and demanding I haul out whatever I had not used or worn that year. “It's a sin to save!” my agnostic mother would thunder. “Poor people could use these—" purses, shoes, skirts, clothes I no longer wore but for reasons I could not explain to her or to myself could not bear to give away.
Now I was ripping pants off hangers, shoving shoes into giant black bags, folding suits and dresses and winter coats, everything covered in cat hair and reeking from mothballs, the scent of her final years, when she had given up wearing perfume. As I bagged her clothing, I tried to push past my sadness by remembering that I had seen her do this same thing after my sister's death, and thirty-four years later, after my father's, coolly, with no emotion, or so it had seemed.
But what of her yarn and knitting needles, her slippers and hair brush, the framed prints, chipped ceramic ducks and cats, the photo albums filled with snapshots of trips she had taken with my father, one or the other of them posed in front of monuments in Prague, London, Jerusalem, or any of the dozen or so other cities they'd visited? What could I do with these things that were of no value to strangers, which I lacked the heart to simply throw out? All the storage space in my own house was already crammed with furniture from her last move, cartons filled with favorite toys, baby sweaters and art projects from my daughters' childhood and adolescence, with record albums, memorabilia and journals of my own?
What does one do with all the stuff that's left behind?
One summer, my daughter Charlotte bought an 8mm projector and home movies at a flea market in Cape Cod that had belonged to a dentist and his wife from Massachusetts. It made me ache to see these movies that had been so carefully shot, developed, and catalogued—their birthday parties and vacations-spread out on the parking lot of a drive-in theater, sold to strangers for a couple of bucks. I couldn't imagine anyone doing such a thing.
Ten years later, I understood it perfectly.
Why save my journals when even I never read them? Before my mother died, when I'd considered getting rid of them, it seemed as if to do so was to throw out my past, discarding the girl, the single woman, the young wife, the mother of babies. When I considered putting the carton full of journals on the curb beside the trash cans, it seemed like a confession that I was done with my history, though all my life I have held onto the conviction that the past is the foundation and first layers of the present self, that remembering is everything. It isn't merely that I agree that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” as George Santayana wrote. I also believe that the only thing each of us truly possesses is our own history, that it is the stuff of life. So throwing out the journals felt like discarding pieces of myself. Leaving the carton in storage seemed easy enough when death was still remote, more a metaphor or a threat than something that would actually happen to me. Now my sister and parents are gone, along with all of their siblings. I'm at a point in my life where I can go away for a brief vacation and return to find that a friend, a contemporary, has dropped dead while I was out of town. These events have made me feel the reality of death. They remind me that if I don't take action while I'm still around, someone will be faced with the job of throwing away a massive amount of stuff that once had meaning to me, including my journals, and that these bound books full of my thoughts and observations will be incinerated, pawed over by strangers, or read by someone who'd known me when I was alive—someone with the patience to read my awful left-hander's scrawl.
And what of these journals? I last breezed through some pages in 2004, when I was preparing to move to a new house. Wearied by the prospect of hauling all my stuff from one basement to another, it had crossed my mind to get rid of the manuscripts and journals that I'd kept in storage for so many years.
I opened a carton and in one of the volumes found an entry about a series of strange encounters with a much older man—someone close to my father's age. I was stunned to read it and thought, that actually happened? I hadn't forgotten meeting the man thirty-seven years ago in the Cape, not far from the flea market where Charlotte bought the home movies. Instead, the events had been reworked by time, discomfort and memory, transforming something that had actually transpired into what I'd come to believe was a product of my imagination (reminding me how thin the membrane between verifiable event and what we imagine to be true). At the time I wondered what good it would do for anyone to read about this event or any of the escapades I felt compelled to record in my journals. And yet to tear out the pages with details I did not wish to share seemed bizarre, out of character. And so I was left wondering: What would I lose if I throw out everything?
Five years later, I still don't know the answer. What—if anything—am I saying about my life if I dispose of those boxes? Is my continued ambivalence about keeping them a sign that my mother's death has made me feel closer to my own?
Some of my mother's possessions I am very pleased to have. Her flatware, the foyer table from our house, with hinged sides that turn the round top into a triangle—these things are now part of my everyday life. Her silver and champagne glasses, which I use for holidays, remind me what a gifted host she was. The watercolor of chicks, newly hatched from an egg, that was painted by a neighbor's father and hung with other pictures on the brick fireplace of the house where I spent my childhood is now in my dining room. I don't care if it's awkward or sentimental; I like it a lot.
What I cherish most is the album with the photos from my parents' early life. When I found it in my mother's apartment, I stopped throwing clothes into bags and sat to look through the pages. There are three pictures from my parents' simple wedding ceremony, conducted in wartime. How lovely my mother is in her broad-brimmed hat. My father, with his dark wavy hair and cleft in his chin is as handsome as a matinee idol. The kiss that was captured, the two of them wrapped in each other's arms, is a record of their passion, something I never thought about when I was growing up. And why would I, when they were my parents, whose style, common in that generation, I suppose, was to maintain a distance. They did not acknowledge their inner lives, and never spoke of love or loss.
In the album there are photos of my sister as an infant in a crib, and as a toddler, clutching a fence that surrounds the tennis courts in Lincoln Terrace Park in Brooklyn. No shadow darkens these early photos of my parents and sister; there is no hint of her awful demise at twenty. The snapshots of my parents picnicking, sweeping a cabin, sledding in a city park are sensuous. You can feel their youth and vitality. No one poses in these pictures, the way my parents do in the travel photos, where they stand as erect as the buildings behind them. My mother maintained that travel was the best part of her life, but the early photos—the one of my father flat on his back on the grass with my sister, a baby, on his chest, her fingers in his mouth—these tell a story that my parents never shared.
I wish I knew more than just the brief outline of my parents' lives and not merely as their child, forever their child, in the years after my sister's death, when I spent so much time in an awful dance of breaking away and drawing close, of trying to make up for their loss and knowing it was impossible, of hating myself for what I could not give them and resenting them for what they could not give me. I want the other stories that made up who they were, the stories I didn't know, the glimpses I could not have taken, a vantage point not my own.
In the few home movies we had—perhaps fifteen minutes in all—I am the little girl in the background, jumping and flapping my arms, dying to be noticed. I am that little girl still, wanting to be known in a rather frantic way.
My journals are not a record of my life. (Nor are my memoirs, since the scenes in each book are arranged to illuminate a particular story from life, rather than being about life in general.) If only I were a diarist and kept a record of where I went or what I felt about events of the time, I might have a different feeling about saving my writing. But, no. There's nothing about Vietnam in my journals, though my undergraduate days were shaped by protest, not a word about 9/11, though my roots are in New York, as I was, two days after the towers fell, when the city still reeked from soot and flesh. All I have of that event are a series of email messages, which will vanish in the ether, even before I do. My journals are not like those of M. F. K. Fisher, who wrote volumes about food and life, with such grace that even the record of what she drank on a single afternoon—“a poor white wine and a glass of good champagne and a very small brandy, over some three artfully prolonged hours,” is delightful to read. I am no Samuel Pepys, who lived through the plague and the Great Fire of London and recorded historic events and domestic ones with so much rich detail that a whole period of time comes alive for readers centuries later. Nor can I read my crabbed entries and find, as Joan Didion did when she came upon the scenes in her own notebooks, “what it was to be me.” No grandchild or stranger at a flea market could read my journals and say: here is the story of a girl who lived in New York in the 1960s, a member of Students for a Democratic Society, a first-wave feminist, a struggling writer, a mother, a lover, a traveler. My journals, sporadically kept, are mostly records of despair. Some anecdotes appear throughout, some descriptions of various adventures, a few entries about my long labor and the birth of my first daughter, but they are without balance or context. Like my mother, I have lived through heartache, but I don't want to be remembered as someone whose life was about misery, when I have lived fully and loved with extravagance and laughed until I ached all over. My journals, taken alone, look like scribblings of a somber, unsmiling woman, a brief record of a lifetime of gloom.
I don't find myself thinking, “If only I'd lived differently!” as much as wishing my journals were worth someone's effort to read. Part of this is vanity; part springs from a lifetime of spending too many sunny afternoons reworking sentences and passages, aiming for perfection, while knowing it is impossible to attain. When I try to figure out what to do with that carton, I think, Wait! I'm not done yet! It's a sentiment that stops me cold. Not done living, for certain. As for the journals, I'm stuck with regret. If only my entries were a bright and witty record of my passage through a world long gone… If only I had revised…
Part of what makes the process of sorting through the possessions of the dead so daunting is the sheer quantity of stuff that's left behind, the way after a while, everything starts to feel worthless. I yearned for more photographs of my parents' early married life, but the fact that there were so few snapshots heightened my emotions.
I'd like to imagine I will throw away all my detritus, including my journals, and leave behind a single object from each decade of my life, just enough to pique someone's imagination. A pressed rose, a silver lapel pin from a science fair; a peasant dress with pink and purple cross-stitching across the sleeves; a wrapped candy with a cellophane wrapper that says, “Mothers are Worth a Mint at Chemical Bank,” a trophy from a road race. A divorce decree, a campaign sticker, a love letter—only one.